The name Pembina comes from the Michif word “lii paabinaan” (drawn from the Ojibwe word “aniibimin”) for the highbush cranberries that lend their flaming color to the nearby woods in autumn.
The community traces its beginnings to about 1797 when Charles Chaboillez, of the North West Fur Company, established a temporary wintering fur trading post at the confluence of the Pembina and Red Rivers. Shortly afterward the Hudson's Bay Company opened a post here, under the operation of Alexander Henry, in 1800, and the X Y Company also established several posts in this area. The three companies competed heavily for the majority of trade with the half-breed Metis and the Ojibwe who frequented the area, providing cheap trade goods and rum.
In 1812, about 227 Scotch and Swiss colonists were brought to Pembina by William Douglas, the Earl of Selkirk, under an agreement with Hudson's Bay Company to settle and farm the area, as Pembina was under British control until 1818, when the international boundary placed it under the control of the United States.
Throughout the early and middle part of the nineteenth century Pembina was the one of the main rendezvous for Metis and Plains Ojibwe hunters, and the town was the starting point for the great Pembina buffalo hunts. Stories abound about the massive hunts that left Pembina, often taking in millions of pounds of pemmican and furs in a single season before returning to trade them back. Hundreds of Metis maintained residence at Pembina, and the surrounding area, using it as their main wintering place.
Although a church and a school were started at Pembina early in the 1800s, the community made little progress until 1843 when Norman Kittson, of the American Fur Company, established a large trading store that he kept stocked with goods of all kinds, brought up from St. Paul. His business thrived as it served as a middle-man hub where he would buy furs in bulk and have them shipped to St. Paul by Red River cart. The carts would, in turn, haul valuable goods back to Pembina for trade with the half-breeds and Indians. Kittson also served as postmaster, creating an avenue for communication with the outside world.
As the fur trade dwindled down during the 1860s, the place became less important and many of the half-breeds and Ojibwe began to filter west towards Turtle Mountain and the western Plains. After the signing of the 1863 Old Crossing Treaty, white farmers began to stake claims in the region. Pembina was finally incorporated as a city in 1885, and the traditional indigenous owners of the land eventually abandoned the area, with the exception of a few Metis families who took homesteads and remained. Their descendants can still be found in Pembina and many of the surrounding communities to this day.
WPA Federal Writers Project (1935). North Dakota: A Guide to the Northern Prairie State. Washington: USGPO
Barnes-Williams, Mary Ann (1966). Origins of North Dakota Place Names. Bismarck: Tribune Publishing
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities